New OMB Open Government Directive Offers FOI Opportunities

December 16, 2009

Close your eyes and make a wish. What three databases would you like EPA to put online that are not there now?

On December 8, 2009, the White House Office of Management and Budget ordered almost every federal agency to give you a wish like that — if not by Christmas, then shortly thereafter.

"Within 45 days, each agency shall identify and publish online in an open format at least three high-value data sets ... and register those data sets via Data.gov," OMB decreed. "These must be data sets not previously available online or in a downloadable format."

While there are plenty of EPA databases already on line, not all of them are in a form that can be quickly downloaded in their entirety and imported into standard database software. That's a key criterion specified by OMB, and one that will ease computer-assisted reporting for those journalists whose editors still have the patience for it. Many of the other agencies that environmental reporters deal with — say the Departments of Interior, Energy, and Agriculture — are years behind EPA in this regard.

The new OMB directive, which follows up on an Executive Order signed by President Obama almost as soon as he took office, also requires most agencies within 60 days to put up an "Open Government Webpage" to showcase new FOI initiatives. Those Web pages must give the public a way to tell the agency what information they want published and a way to give the agency feedback on how successful its openness efforts are.